Michael Kuhn

Michael Kuhn from the Global Center of Excellence at Interroll talks about innovation cycles, trends and complex innovation processes of an international company.

Entire production or conveyer systems consist of the various modules that are manufactured by Interroll at completely different locations. How do you manage such innovation processes? Where are the interfaces, and how is something like this managed and monitored?

Basically we have three manufacturing sites for the automation products and a Center of Excellence in Sinsheim for the other international manufacturing sites. Here is where we define, invent and implement—then comes the worldwide rollout. But when you invent, make and define something new without having the others first onboard, they will not accept it. You then encounter the "not-invented-by-us" effect. That is why we have to go a lot further. We set up manufacturing lines and assembly lines here in Sinsheim and then copy the exact same elements and workflows at the sites in the USA and China. That means we do the same as we do for products, we parallelize the rollout with the various themes from marketing to product management, engineering tools and through to the finishing processes.

At the same time, one needs to pay attention to the customer's innovation cycles. Do they correspond somewhat to how you proceed and develop? Or is it rather a response?

There are a few innovative requirements for the system functionalities where general trends can be identified: Our experience shows that material handling is becoming faster, the goods transported are becoming heavier, sorting is faster (in e-commerce and storage as well), food storage is steadily more dominant, and the same applies to refrigeration. Transported goods are becoming heavier, and they need to be transported faster and sorted faster. They are heavier because the systems today are so thoroughly automated that normally, no human needs to restack or lift them. It allows more goods to be transported on the same amount of surface area, and also faster. Innovations are promoted here in the sense that I would not call revolutionary. It has to do with bringing solid material handling for the customers into the next generation so that transport and distribution is faster and heavier.

Industry 4.0 is on the lips of everyone: highly integrative data flows in the system that can practically be used horizontally and vertically in all process chains and exploited to our benefit.

This is something that we will experience in the future. The key word is flexibility, in other words, fast response to change, otherwise I do not need the data stream. For this, fieldbus structures are available that can transport all relevant information and process it. And then, one naturally wants the system to respond to it. Different load cycles, different pathway scenarios, updating protocols as well.

How do flexibility and standardization fit together?

The decisive question is: At which level should the standardization occur? If it is at the level of the conveyor, you get a lot of variation. If, however, the standardization is at an assembly and component level, then infinitely many, completely different conveyors can be built with few assemblies and components through clever combination. In principle, they are all the same, but their application is different. There is no art to putting standardization at the proper level in the integrated tree structure of an installation—and then to systematically follow through.

Industry 4.0 stands for the fully automated smart factory, intelligent production and intelligent products. What does this mean for Interroll in terms of innovation?

With fully automated manufacturing, full automation does not occur with the material handling but rather at the destination where the conveyor is heading. For instance, you have robot stations, finishing work stations, etc. At the end, you have to be smart (i.e., have a good interface) when reaching the finishing process, to direct the goods there in the process, and then to take them away again. It is primarily an interface topic; in other words concerning mechanical and data interface. Our customers install RFID antennas or scanners in the rails and then can connect them to our pre-installed fieldbus. Data can be quickly forwarded through the fast fieldbus networks and edited so that the pathway strategies can be quickly designed or changed. But that is what our integrators do. Interroll's product world is the decentralized control at the conveyor. Data flows, actuators, everything that involves motors and sensors. And, hopefully, all that in energy saving mode. Everything that takes place at the control level (installation control, material flow calculations and inventory calculators) is the core competence of our customers. As such, their core competence is also our challenge.

Finally: What does cyber physical industry mean for Interroll? Opportunity or threat?

We consider change as an opportunity. You just need to apply it correctly, bet on the right horse, recognize trendsetters, be the trendsetter yourself, play ball with the right partner. There are no any threats, there are only challenges—and opportunities. 

Read more in its first part of the interview on the difference between evolution and wow effects.

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